Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series of stories with Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke.
WEST LAFAYETTE -- Morgan Burke isn't into mediocrity. Not even close. He has a vision for the Purdue athletic department and if it's taken a couple of decades to implement, well, sometimes doing it right means being patient.
If you've seen the facility upgrades and the success of such coaches as Matt Painter (men's basketball), Joe Tiller (football), Sharon Versyp (women's basketball), Devon Brouse (golf) and Dave Shondell (volleyball), you know it's paid off. During his 20-year run there have been national championships in women's basketball and women's golf, an Elite Eight appearance in women's volleyball, one Rose Bowl appearance, Big Ten titles in men's basketball, baseball and more.
Still, as athletic director, Burke isn't satisfied. He sits in his space office overlooking tree-lined Northwestern Avenue and outlines the future.
“I look at it like in the next five to 10 years it's time for Purdue to bust through,” he says.
“We're stuck in the middle in certain respects. We're going to spend time in June at a coaches' development meeting to talk about that. What's it take to get out of the middle.
“There is a part of the Purdue culture, and I am part of it, that maybe we're so rational that we never allow the dream to come true. We have to be willing to dream a little bit.”
Burke is willing to dream -- within the reason a $70 million budget allows. That's big by Ball State standards, but in the Big Ten's bottom quarter.
Some call him cheap. He prefers frugal. Either way, he has the athletic program operating in the black, and if that's about to change for a year or two, well, you don't sink a quarter of a billion dollars in facility upgrades without incurring some kind of debt.
Since Burke, a Purdue grad and former swim team captain, arrived in 1993 after a successful business career, the Boilers have basically upgraded all 18 sports. The big ticket items were the $70 million improvements to Ross-Ade Stadium and the $100 million that went into the Mackey Arena project. The next sport to be addressed is the $13 million project to build a new softball stadium to balance the new baseball stadium, Alexander Field, that just opened. Bidding for that project will come this year.
That won't end the upgrades. There are plans to build new indoor and outdoor track facilities (with a $30 million price tag). Burke wants to redo Ross-Ade Stadium's south end zone, eliminate the aging bleachers (shrinking seating capacity from 62,500 to 56,500) and install a bigger, better video scoreboard. The football team room is being redone with a theater seating feel, the lounge outside the football offices has been renovated and then there are the never-ending maintenance needs
Improving football attendance is a major priority. In Tiller's heyday, the Boilers were drawing 60,000-plus a game. Last year it was 43,588, the worst since 1992. Darrell Hazell was hired last December, at $2 million a year, to turn that around.
Oh, yes -- to lead the Boilers to the Rose Bowl.
It's dreaming big, you see.
Burke talked about that, and more, in a recent wide-ranging interview with The News-Sentinel. This is the first in a multi-part Q&A series.
Your thoughts on what transpired in last week's Big Ten spring meeting in Chicago?
I continue to be proud to have these colleagues around the table. We deal with difficult issues where everybody could try to game each other. I think for most part we're trying to protect the brand. What's in the best interest of the conference. That's not always easy. You have to take your personal situation aside and put your Big Ten hat on. That was productive.
We approved the Big Ten football schedules (for 2014). We're getting closer to the postseason football opportunity. I think you'll see a national slate of (bowl tie-ins with the Big Ten) that will evolve. You'll see a diversity of opponents across conferences (in those bowls). You'll see efforts to avoid bowl repeats, like we did in San Antonio or El Paso. I felt that was a constructive discussion.
We're still trying to work through all the scheduling issues as we bring in two new members (Maryland, Rutgers) into the conference. That will probably take the better part of a year to do.
Big Ten expansion and Notre Dame's link to the ACC has left the series with the Irish in doubt. Any update on that?
(Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick) and I have been friends for 25 years. We're both respectful of the tradition that was handed down to us. (Former Purdue quarterback, football assistant coach and athletic department administrator) Dale Samuels was the one who passed it on to me, along with Bob DeMoss (the former Boiler quarterback, football head coach and assistant athletic director). (Former Notre Dame assistant football coach and athletic department administrator) George Kelly passed it down to the Notre Dame people.
As Dale told it to me, there was a period of time when (Notre Dame athletic director) Moose Krause wanted to play the Big Ten. For whatever reason people weren't buying, but (Purdue athletic director) Red Mackey bought in. He said I'll play you. That's how it got started.
At the same time, we all have issues. We're now part of a conference with 13 other members. We're going to go to nine conference games (in 2016). Notre Dame made the decision to go to five ACC games. We have some square-peg, round-hole issues. Jack and I are going to do whatever we can to maintain the healthy relationship that exists between our schools. We're working on it. We'll have to see what happens.
Any idea on when something could be finalized?
No, I really don't.
At the moment, you are only scheduled to play IU once in basketball next season (scheduled at Mackey Arena), your non-conference schedule is already set, is there anyway that could be changed to fit in another IU game at Assembly Hall?
It's not a matter of wanting to. We've contracted with schools. They're depending on us. Many of those are coming here to get guarantees. It's not as easy as change the schedule. We have contractual agreements. We're not going to (break) a contract. This is not the first time this has happened. In 2007-08 and 2001-02 it also happened. Michigan isn't playing Ohio State twice.
The league gets bigger and scheduling gets harder. I'm glad we protected the rivalry (with IU) in football. I'm not opposed, nor is (IU athletic director Fred Glass), to talking about extending the rivalry in basketball. But there's a ripple effect every time you do this stuff.
For example, you do it in football, you already have to play six divisional opponents, and then (three other teams from the other division) every two years. Then you start over. With Purdue and Indiana in football, it will be two opponents (instead of three) every two years, so it will take us an extra year to recycle. There are some ramifications and some competitiveness issues that, as you get in the broader group, it's more challenging to do.
The (2014) football schedule was released and we're going to play at Indiana twice in a row (this season and next season). We did that at Penn State. Iowa will have to do that here. Sometimes we get a little bit myopic and think about our situation and you have to realize it's part of a bigger puzzle.
I'm sure Indiana basketball fans would like to have us in Assembly Hall next year. I'd like to have them in football at Ross-Ade Stadium. I don't want to have to go twice down to Indiana. Sometimes that occurs. At the end of the day, we have a good rivalry with IU.
There's a possibility of rescheduling the Crossroads Classic (the one-day event with Purdue, Butler, Notre Dame and Indiana in Indianapolis) to play IU. Is that likely?
You have it set right now. Whether all the parties would entertain that, whether it's in everybody's best interest, I don't know. It's conceivable.
Maryland and Rutgers recently joined the Big Ten, do you envision the conference expanding beyond 14 teams? Should it do so?
I don't know. I didn't think we'd end up with 14. In the Big Ten we've stayed true that if there are going to be additions, it has to be a good academic fit. Maryland and Rutgers are both major national research universities. It's contiguous to the Big Ten from Pennsylvania. It gives you more of a national footprint into a very important corridor in this country (the East Coast). It makes sense.
I don't know if not for Notre Dame and the ACC, and then the ACC with Syracuse and Pitt (which left the Big East), and other changes, that this would have happened. When Notre Dame elected to create a relationship with the ACC, a (tectonic) plate shifted a little bit. On top of that, the uncertainty about what would happen to the Big East precipitated a flurry of activity. Whether that will cause other shifts, I don't know.
I was happy with 10 teams. I was happy with 11. I just want to make sure the academics are an important piece. I don't want anybody coming in viewed as an OK school academically. We have as good a set of schools as there is in the country. It makes a difference.
Is there any sense of regret that the Big Ten couldn't work out getting Notre Dame to join the conference?
We went through that very openly back in the late 1990s. It wasn't the right time. I think selfishly, as an Irish Catholic from Indianapolis, that I would have preferred it, but they had to look at their institution and we had to look at our group.
It looks like it makes sense on paper, but a lot of mergers look like they make sense and then they don't work. I wished it could have been an equal marriage where people would have been excited, but I don't think there's any animosity. We still play them in virtually every sport. I don't see that changing. At least for this period of time, it is what it is.